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Ain’t Chicago’s City Council Ready For Reform? We’ll Find Out Tuesday

Is Chicago finally ready for reform?

Maybe it ain’t. But the corruption scandal that’s ensnared Chicago’s most powerful City Council member has spurred much talk of reform at City Hall. And this week, aldermen are set to discuss several major changes to city ethics rules.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s package of ethics reforms drafted in the wake of the recent City Hall scandal is up for debate Tuesday by the City Council’s Rules Committee, and the changes could get final approval Wednesday. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Ending aldermanic “privilege”

The mayor’s ordinance attempts to tamp down on aldermanic privilege — an unwritten rule that gives aldermen sole discretion to decide what gets built in their wards.

In recent years, this zoning authority has provoked numerous lawsuits against the city by developers who allege aldermen have abused their authority to advance arbitrary zoning changes or to hold controversial developments hostage.

This type of aldermanic power also lies at the center of the federal attempted extortion charge against Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, which prompted Emanuel’s proposals. Burke is accused of holding up a Burger King remodeling project in his ward until the restaurant’s owners agreed to hire his private law firm.  

Emanuel’s proposal would prevent endless delays on zoning matters — one of the most common tools aldermen use to block projects they don’t want. It sets a countdown clock of 180 days for all ward-level matters that need an alderman’s approval. It’s also about removing “ulterior motives” from zoning matters, Emanuel explained in January. Aldermen will still have the authority to rezone any property in their ward.

Resolving those conflicts of interest

The other piece of the Burke scandal that’s raised the hackles of reformers is that the alderman long maintained a lucrative side hustle as a property tax appeals attorney, while many of his clients also needed favors at City Hall.

A investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association just a week before Burke’s arrest found Burke’s conflicts of interest frequently interfered with his work as an alderman. An examination of every City Council vote in the last eight years found the Finance Committee chairman recused himself from voting due to conflicts of interest a startling 464 times. The comparable total for all 49 other aldermen combined is 108.

Emanuel’s reform plan would address potential conflicts of interest by committee chairs. But it stops short of a wholesale ban on outside employment for aldermen, who make more than $100,000 a year for their elected posts.

If a chair abstains from voting on a matter before their committee more than three times in a year due to personal conflicts, the chair must end the business relationship that causes the conflict or resign their chairmanship.

But the mayor doesn’t think aldermen should be prevented from holding outside jobs altogether and has argued that it promotes diversity on the City Council. In January, he gave the example of Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th Ward, who owns and operates a restaurant in Lakeview.  

“Do you think it’s wrong to have the views and inputs of somebody who runs a small business here? I don’t,” Emanuel said.

Both candidates who want to replace Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, say they support restrictions around aldermen holding outside jobs.

Ethics plans with more teeth? Not so fast

An ordinance that would put a wholesale ban on outside employment for aldermen is on the Budget Committee agenda for Tuesday. Sponsoring Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward, said it’s concerning that a third of his colleagues have side jobs.

But Lopez’s ordinance, as well as a slew of other reform plans from aldermen on the Budget Committee agenda, will fall victim to parliamentary procedure.

This means aldermen won’t have the ability to vote on an ordinance to impose term limits or to broaden the city Inspector General’s investigative authority over the City Council.

Bob Buchanan, a legislative aide for the council’s Budget Committee, confirmed the ordinances will be sent to the Rules Committee, colloquially known as the place proposed ordinances go to die. That essentially delays any action on those proposals until after the April 2 runoff elections.

A prior attempt to strengthen the city inspector general’s authority to investigate aldermen was thwarted by Burke and Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, back in 2016.

But the sponsors revived the proposal after Burke became embroiled in the federal investigation.  

Claudia Morell covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @claudiamorell.

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